The Second Time Around

CHAMPAIGN – Most likely an underlying thought goes through Tim Beckman's mind while studying game film of the Louisiana Tech offense.

Man, he may say to himself as he's charting plays, to have an offense like that.

Beckman, in his first year at Illinois, is considered a defensive-minded coach given his history on that side of the ball.

He no doubt spends more time prepping for opposing team's offenses, leaving the work of his own scoring units to those who know better. This week Beckman's defense has quite the challenge, readying for the fast paced, wide-open-while-still-balanced Bulldogs offense.

Looking at the film and stats, the 83 plays and 56 points per game, probably has Beckman drawing overtime. And it also has him hoping one day the Illini offense has a similar look.

"Oh, no question," he answers when asked. "No question."

After all, his Toledo squad averaged over 40 points a game last year. But that can't happen for Illinois right now due to injuries, youth and the growing pains that inevitably occur in the first year on the job.

Instead, Beckman's Illini are tasked with stopping what has to this point not been stopped. Louisiana Tech will travel to Memorial Stadium this weekend with the No. 3 scoring offense in the country. The signature is the quickness with which the unit regroups after each play and snaps the ball.

For the sake of speed, Tech won't substitute for plays at a time and occasionally will run the same play twice in a row.

"They'll stay in the same formation and run certain plays out of that formation and then bring in a whole set of new backs and wide receivers," Beckman said.

By comparison, the Bulldogs run about 15 more plays a game than Illinois. Doesn't sound like much, but consider the team averages over seven yards each down. That's over 100 yards of advantage, staggering when put in the context of a game that so often boils down to inches.

"It's going to be a real challenge," said Illinois "Star" Ashante Williams. "… Actually I've seen them hiking the ball even before the chains got set."

It's not just the speed of the snaps that's hard to deal with. There's balance, too.

Louisiana Tech currently ranks ninth in the country with 289 yards rushing and 17th with 314 yards passing.

Quarterback Colby Cameron, a senior, is 10th in the country in total yards of offense per game (332.50) and is joined by a trio of playmakers that must be accounted for. Receiver Quinton Patton and tailbacks Tevin King and D.J. Banks account for 372.50 yards per game, making it difficult to single out a target to try minimizing on each play.

Beckman, again, envies the amount of options Tech seemingly has.

"Being able to use the multiple speeds is what in essence is what you would love to be able to do," he said. "To… run a fast tempo offense and then change the speeds trying to keep the players off balance; I think that's what you are ultimately want to work towards."

It's not as if Illinois hasn't seen something of this ilk before. It's just that the defense struggled with it. Two weeks ago, Arizona State ran a version of the up-tempo, multiple and balanced offensive attack to the tune of 45 points, 510 total yards and an orange and blue bucket full of hurt feelings.

What went wrong in that game? The struggles basically boiled down to three glaring issues: eye violations, or keying on proper reads, tackling and a miscommunication on play calls.

The first in the chain of events on every play – relaying what the coaches want the players to do – has supposedly been corrected.

"That's something we got fixed last week," said Illini defensive end Michael Buchanan.

The details are murky due to multiple accounts, but a few players claimed the calls weren't coming from the coaches fast enough in Tempe. Also, some players weren't looking at the right signals, motioned by three different coaches from the sideline.

The system has been re-tooled, with color-coded cards employed on the sideline to provide an easier-to-read function, complete with quicker delivery.

Also, the coaches have encouraged players to talk to each other more frequently before each snap.

"If you communicate and you talk, good things usually happen," defensive coordinator Tim Banks points out.

The Sun Devils racked up 228 yards after initial contact, a stat that will doom the Illini if repeated Saturday.

The staff has harped on the fundamentals recently in practice, always reminding players to pursue, pursue and pursue the football.

That will aid in "not making it a one-on-one game," Beckman said.

"We're working on conditioning this week, running to the ball, everybody getting to the ball, hustling on and off the field so we can be prepared for this challenged because we know they're a real fast paced offense and can score points," Williams said.

And those eye violations – the little flaw that leads to big problems. Keeping to the keys, or responsibilities on each play, speaks to discipline. The defense, position by position, met to watch film Monday morning, a study method that will be repeated throughout the week. There's been an emphasis placed on understanding each role and what will happen if even just one man misses an assignment.

"We've got to stay with the receiver through our zone," Beckman said. "That happened to us against Arizona State on a couple long passes."

Stopping an offense such as this isn't easy. Houston and Rice failed miserably, but those two teams don't feature the level of talent Illinois has. The struggles of two weeks ago proved the Illini weren't ready. That's hindsight, which can often be useful when looking to the future.

"We just have to make sure we get our calls, you know, don't make as many mistakes as we did at Arizona State and just match up pretty well," said defensive tackle Akeem Spence. "I feel like if we do our job, we can shut them down pretty good."

The up-tempo offense has an increasing presence in college football. Sure, it may still be looked at as a way for smaller schools like Louisiana Tech to bridge the talent gap. But Beckman says he would eventually like to run something similar at Illinois. And Saturday won't be the last time the Illini sees something at this pace, as teams from major conferences increasingly employ variations of the sped up spread.

"We've prepared, and like I said you've been through it and you've got to make sure you can control the speed and you can get what you need in so that your players understand what's going on," Beckman said.

It's a test that must be passed, as Williams puts it, because "this is the type of game to come out and show everyone the type of defense we are. We feel like we can redeem ourselves from our last night game. This is big game for us."


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